When Virtual Is More Than Real

When Virtual Is More Than Real

While the relationship between financial and environmental systems and institutions has drawn increasing attention, these useful efforts arguably overlook some basic historical trends with substantial implications. Consider, for example, the change in the physical structure of money. Money began as artifacts with some physical aesthetic and scarcity value - shells, for example. An important second phase occurred when coins were created, for such metal artifacts not only embodied inherent physical value, but explicit information content printed on them (for example, the issuing authority, and some indication of a commonly accepted and uniform denomination). Paper money went a step further, since physical composition was now entirely secondary to the embedded information: a one dollar bill is materially no different than a fifty dollar bill, but the information represented on it makes it very different. And now, of course, money is becoming completely dematerialized, a cyberspace function requiring no physical representation at all (save, perhaps, the credit card that is simply a substrate for the all-important strip containing the relevant information). In short, value is completing its historical shift from the physical to the informational realm as financial flows approach pure information, riding on the common cyberspace infrastructure.

From one perspective, this is a significant environmental achievement. Just think how much ore would have to be mined to support coinage for an economy of the size and complexity of today's if we still only used metallic money. The implications are hinted at by current dialogs regarding gold production and consumption, with gold mining attacked by environmentalists, even as in many developing economies gold artifacts and jewelry remain one of the few viable means for storing wealth. Even making and printing paper to support an all-currency economy would be environmentally challenging. Of course, without the dematerialization of finance, the difficulty of shifting sufficient physical money around the world would probably itself act as a limit to global economic activity. The increasing complexity and scale of the economy at some point is, in fact, dependent on a continued shift from material to informational representations of value.

But the implications for environmentalism of this simple case are far more complex than simply criticizing a dematerialized monetary system because it enables a much larger economy, and thus greater production and consumption, for this dynamic appears to be a more general phenomenon. Thus, money began as "natural" artifacts invested with meaning by human culture, transitioned to arbitrary meaning embossed on an essentially irrelevant platform (paper bills), and then became a pattern embedded in a virtual structure. With each step, cultural information supplanted "natural" value, until a purely human system, characterized primarily by anthropogenic information structures, evolved. Now apply this pattern to the acculturation of children in Europe, the United States, or Japan. A hundred years ago, children were firmly embedded in the physical world: they worked on farms, played physical games outside, knew what weather meant because there was no electrical air conditioning and inefficient heating. Thirty or forty years ago, much of their milieu was still physical: even the cars the teenagers worked on were physical rather than, as today, primarily electronic systems. Today, of course, many children, especially in developed countries, are shaped by television; the Internet; cell phone talk, text and pictures; and electronic gaming: their attention spans, time cycles of activities, expectations of stimulation from ambient environments and the like are conditioned not by seasons or natural cycles, but by the dynamics of purely anthropogenic information systems. Not just money, but culture itself, disassociates from the physical world.

Equally important, as this process accelerates, “natural” systems shift from determining the boundaries of human activity (as, for example, early economies might be dependent on the ability to exploit local gold and silver deposits) to becoming subsystems of human information structures. Perhaps the most obvious example is biology, which to most people is the essence of “natural,” but which now, thanks to progress in biotechnology, is rapidly becoming an information structure enabling design and engineering of organisms and biological communities at all scales. Further integration of biological systems as simply components of human information structures occurs through the patent process, which converts biological to economic units.

It is not, of course, that the physical is suddenly irrelevant. But these trends do suggest that the current focus of much environmentalism and sustainability advocacy on the physical is misplaced, naïve, and even dysfunctional, representing a profound misunderstanding of the increasingly information dense and complex anthropogenic world.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.